By Steve Silverman
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The NFL's all-powerful commissioner Roger Goodell has switched sports.
He was playing basketball yesterday and his shot got smacked back in his face.
That's what an appeals panel did to his planned suspension of Saints' "Bountygate" players Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita.
Vilma, the alleged ringleader of the Saints pay-for-pain plan among the players, had been suspended for the entire season. Hargrove had been suspended for eight games, Smith for four and Fujita for three games.
The fascinating part of this victory for the Saints' players over the all-powerful Goodell came as a result of outsmarting and out-slicking the commissioner.
They said they were appealing Goodell's ruling based on salary-cap ramifications and not on the allegations that the Saints players had engaged in a bounty system to injure opponents.
The NFLPA did not address that issue in their appeal because it would not have been an area for the independent arbitrator – agreed on by both the league and the players' association – to decide.
As a result, the case goes back to the commissioner, and instead of coming down with a harsh decision like suspending Vilma for a full season, he's going to have to come up with a less severe penalty.
The commissioner does not want to see this issue remain up for debate. He will likely come up with a compromise penalty that the players will accept and then put this case behind them.
But the damage has been done to Goodell no matter how this case is ultimately resolved. He has painted himself as the safety commissioner, the moral commissioner, the disciplinarian commissioner and the all-powerful commissioner.
Goodell has now lost a good deal of his power.
He will now have to play politics during the remainder of his run and negotiate with the NFLPA about future decisions and it seems likely that it will cause him to lose respect in the eyes of the owners who employ him at their pleasure.
Serving as commissioner of the NFL has been a pleasure for Goodell to this point in his tenure. Since taking over for Paul Tagliabue in 2006, he has been widely hailed for his strength and power.
That power is gone and Goodell is going to have to figure out another way to do business. He's going to have build coalitions and make deals so all parties agree and don't take his decisions to independent arbitrators and the courts.
He is going to have to become a politician if he is going to survive.
Chances are he will make an adjustment, but the job will become taxing and draining. Instead of doing what he thinks is the right thing, every decision will have to be tempered by how each individual case looks to the public and whether he's got the strength to actually follow through with such a decision.
He's not going to become a silly puppet like Major League Baseball's Bud Selig over night, but he doesn't have the same kind of power he did before the arbitrator's decision to overturn the suspensions.
The clock is now ticking for Goodell. At some point a year or two from now, he's not going to like his job as much as he once did and while that is happening, a number of owners won't have as much faith in him as they have now.
Unless he's a true politician like Tagliabue was, he won't last anywhere near the 17 years that his predecessor did and he can forget about having a 29-year run like the legendary Pete Rozelle had between 1960 and 1989.
The ironic part is that Rozelle came into the job as a former general manager with the Los Angeles Rams who got along with everyone. Early in his run, he understood that he had to stand up to all-powerful George Halas of the Bears in order to do his job effectively and when he did, Halas respected him.
Rozelle started out as a politician but he acquired the power to run his sport like no other commissioner. Goodell started out as the all-powerful leader, but he will soon become a politician who has to build coalitions.
Say goodbye to leadership from the commissioner's office in the NFL.
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